I like adopting personae in poems, partly because I intensely dislike the notion that lyric poems are (or should be) autobiographical and From The Heart. Poems, for me, are a way of being other, of entering a different viewpoint and consciousness, and that applies to reading as well as writing, for just as there is nothing more liberating for a writer than to inhabit another skin, so there is nothing more fascinating (and, often, revealing) than watching another author do so. Below is an example of an author, already working through the mask of translation, interposing a fictional persona as well, and I'm interested in wondering to what end.
James Elroy Flecker's "The Hammam Name" has a playfulness and wildly imaginative humour that have always appealed to me. Briefly, it concerns a young man who goes to the "hammam" or public bath (the word "name" in the title is, I think, the early 20th-century equivalent of "celebrity"). This lad is so impossibly beautiful (or is imagined to be so by the narrator) that not only human beings but inanimate objects fall in love with him on sight. Soap melts with love, a window shatters, bubbles burst like breaking hearts. The hammam's personnel are no more immune: witness the swooning shampooer's priceless line about the full moon.
The poem announces itself as being a translation "from a poem by a Turkish Lady", and this is where the business of persona comes in. It is indeed a translation, and a pretty faithful one both to the poem's events and its rollicking rhythms, by accounts I've seen (I'm no scholar of Turkish, but Flecker was). But this Turkish Lady is a fiction: the original author was in fact one Mehmet Emin Beligh of Larissa, an 18th-century male Ottoman poet.
On the face of it, there's one very obvious reason why Flecker might have wanted to put the poem in a female voice – in a male persona, it's extremely homoerotic, a thing of which Edwardian England might, at least overtly, have disapproved more than 18th-century Turkey did. But I'm not sure this wholly explains the Turkish Lady. After all, the reactions of the male bath-house personnel and customers are unequivocal and in no way played down. Just as educated English audiences were used to accepting, with varying degrees of enthusiasm or reluctance, the fact that Classical Greeks and Romans had more adventurous attitudes to sex than modern Christians, so they knew also that these things were managed differently out East. If Flecker wanted to distance himself from the poem's homoeroticism, all he needed to do was flag it up as a translation from its actual author.
What the Turkish Lady does, it seems to me, is add an extra layer of distance and fictionalising. In the first place, she isn't herself a witness to any of this: she can't be. The hammam was a single-sex environment: women were not necessarily barred, but they would not go at the same times as men. The Lady sees what happens in the first few lines: her young idol walking down the street toward the hammam. From then on, her own imagination and yearning attraction supplies the rest. She projects her feelings on to objects and people who, however hopeless their desire, are at least in contact with the boy in a way that she, in a segregated society, can never be. The soap may melt and the shampooer faint, but they do at least touch him, see him in a state of undress. Bitterness is born of beauty, she says, and the final three words about the frozen water have an emotional impact I don't think they would have in a male voice. Spoken by the man who wrote it, the poem is essentially funny and playful; the boy's inaccessibility more an amusing poetic conceit than anything else. In the voice of Flecker's invented Turkish Lady, it is still playful and imaginative, but the hunger behind it speaks more powerfully and the whole thing becomes more about fictionalising and reshaping.
The Hammam Name by James Elroy Flecker
From a poem by a Turkish Lady
Winsome Torment rose from slumber, rubbed his eyes, and went his way
Down the street towards the Hammam. Goodness gracious! people say,
What a handsome countenance! The sun has risen twice to-day!
And as for the Undressing Room it quivered in dismay.
With the glory of his presence see the window panes perspire,
And the water in the basin boils and bubbles with desire.
Now his lovely cap is treated like a lover: off it goes!
Next his belt the boy unbuckles; down it falls, and at his toes
All the growing heap of garments buds and blossoms like a rose.
Last of all his shirt came flying. Ah, I tremble to disclose
How the shell came off the almond, how the lily showed its face,
How I saw a silver mirror taken flashing from its case.
He was gazed upon so hotly that his body grew too hot,
So the bathman seized the adorers and expelled them on the spot;
Then the desperate shampooer his propriety forgot,
Stumbled when he brought the pattens, fumbled when he tied a knot,
And remarked when musky towels had obscured his idol's hips,
"See Love's Plenilune, Mashallah, in a partial eclipse!"
Desperate the loofah wriggled: soap was melted instantly:
All the bubble hearts were broken. Yes, for them as well as me,
Bitterness was born of beauty; as for the shampooer, he
Fainted, till a jug of water set the Captive Reason free.
Happy bath! The baths of heaven cannot wash their spotted moon:
You are doing well with this one. Not a spot upon him soon!
Now he leaves the luckless bath for fear of setting it alight;
Seizes on a yellow towel growing yellower in fright,
Polishes the pearly surface till it burns disastrous bright,
And a bathroom window shatters in amazement at the sight.
Like the fancies of a dreamer frail and soft his garments shine
As he robes a mirror body shapely as a poet's line.
Now upon his cup of coffee see the lips of Beauty bent:
And they perfume him with incense and they sprinkle him with scent,
Call him Bey and call him Pasha, and receive with deep content
The gratuities he gives them, smiling and indifferent.
Out he goes: the mirror strains to kiss her darling; out he goes!
Since the flame is out, the water can but freeze.
The water froze.